In an age of event albums like Lemonade and Blonde, does Usher have what it takes to stand out in the pop industry? As his contemporaries embrace manic release schedules, surprise albums and wild musical experimentation, Usher has quietly become one of pop’s most reliable workhorses, and Hard II Love is his latest solid release. It changes up his sound, but not too much. It’s both swaggering and vulnerable, never leaning too much in one direction. It’s production and musicianship are essentially flawless, rendering his music as statuesque as his cover art. Even if Usher doesn’t always have the humanising chips of said statue, he still knows how to put out a quality release.
Each of Usher’s previous releases have embraced a theme stemming from his personal life (Confessions was about detailing his romantic exploits, Raymond vs Raymond was about his divorce), but Hard II Love is largely content to mine similar territory to Looking 4 Myself. It’s largely about an impossible quest to find meaning in sex and love, with the added Hard II Love-specific caveat that Usher is the one causing the problems. Where the album differentiates itself from its predecessors, is in its embracing the sounds of the Atlanta trap scene. The album’s two features (Champions, the final track featuring Rubén Blades is pretty bad, and can essentially be written off as a bonus) are from Future and Young Thug, Atlanta’s breakout stars. For the most part, Usher actually manages to merge this trap sound into his typical, silky-smooth R&B quite effectively.
On No Limit, the Young Thug featuring track, Usher sings in fast, stuttering lines that sound very close to rapping, although the actual beat is more meaty and soulful than those typically found in trap. The sound of the album initially seems like trap, but a closer analysis of the individual pieces reveals it to be something meatier, akin to the post-Drake R&B of someone like Tinashe. The basslines on tracks like Let Me and Rivals are warm and earthy, not like the clinically heavy 808’s of modern hip-hop. It’s a very well produced album, with unfailingly shimmering beats that serve Usher well.
Usher makes the most of his production too, and forges Hard II Love into one of his most consistent albums yet. Lead single Crash is an excellent song, made of hook after hook, and the radio has treated it as such. Missin U is a fun, lecherous party tune in its verses, which unexpectedly switches into a swooning soul number in its chorus. FWM matches house synths with a laid back, cooly chanted chorus – “f**k with me, f**k with me, f**k with me”. Even the 8 minute-long ballad Tell Me is pretty good, drawing out a sweet, romantic tension across its runtime.
Throughout all of this, Usher’s voice is an anchor, glueing the disparate genres of production together, with his warm lower register, and striking falsetto (the opening line of Crash will never not be impressive), although sometimes his singing is a little too perfect. It’s telling the he occasionally adds autotune and distortion to his voice, because he is so technically skilled, he can almost sound a tad robotic at times. Even if it’s not necessarily the most distinctive, Hard II Love is one of Usher’s best albums, proving once again that he deserves all his success.